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Choosing a Funeral Director

Unlike the plethora of price comparison websites or other listings of ‘recommended funeral directors’, we have personally been to visit every one of the companies we list as Recommended by The Good Funeral Guide.

We’ve had a good look round, asked loads of questions and have satisfied ourselves that these people are wholly worthy of our endorsement.

These are the companies that we consider to be the best funeral directors, and we have written about each of them in detail.

If you are a funeral director and are interested in being recommended by us then we invite you to apply for accreditation. Not every applicant succeeds, but if you do then you will be in very good company indeed.

 

 

We can tell you who’s best

All funeral directors look the same – it’s very hard to tell them apart.

Well they don’t all look the same to us. That’s why we offer accreditation to really good funeral directors so that we can, in turn, recommend them to you.

We go to see them. We spend time with them. We look everywhere and ask lots of penetrating questions. We make sure they care for people who have died with kindness and respect. We make sure they listen to you properly, charge you fairly and enable you to create a funeral which fully reflects your values, your wishes and your budget. We write reviews of them on this website.

We’re sorry there aren’t more.  But we hope you will find our listings useful — everyone we recommend is very good indeed.

 

Is there an alternative to a funeral?

 

Direct cremation

Increasing numbers of people are turning to direct cremation or direct burial as alternatives to a conventional funeral.

Direct cremation and direct burial are for:

People who, in line with their beliefs and values, do not feel they need to have a formal, public, ceremonial funeral at which the body of the person who has died is present.

Most people who opt for direct cremation or direct burial could easily afford a traditional funeral but they choose not to.

People who cannot afford a traditional funeral. Because of its simplicity, direct cremation is the cheapest way of disposing of a dead person.

Direct cremation costs as little as £1000 all in.

You don’t go to visit the person who has died in the funeral home. You do not choose the day and time of the cremation/burial. There is no hearse, no procession, no service in the crematorium or at the graveside – nothing. The body goes straight off to be cremated or buried without ceremony and without anyone else there.

Direct cremation is an attractive option for people wanting to bring the person who has died abroad to their home country. It saves the considerable costs of embalming and air freight.

Direct cremation and direct burial do not stop you from having a farewell ceremony – a funeral – if you wish, after the event. If you choose direct cremation you can hold a memorial event of your own devising with, if you wish, the ashes present. Alternatively, you can have the ashes scattered at the crematorium. Whichever you choose, you can have a memorial service.

Direct cremation is for people who regard cremation as a way of preparing a body for a funeral – because you get the ashes back. For them it offers the opportunity to say farewell to someone who has died in their own time and in a way they find more personal, more fitting and more satisfying.

Once the body has been cremated, the ashes are:

Durable (they’ll keep forever).

Portable (around 6 lbs).

Divisible (you can share them out, you don’t have to scatter them all at once).

You can carry them to any venue you choose, whenever you choose, and hold a commemorative event of your own devising — in a church, a village hall, a restaurant; on a mountain top; at the seaside. The ceremony may conclude with a scattering of ashes – as the sun sets or rises, perhaps. But not necessarily. They can be divided up amongst certain people and kept.

Ask yourself: What good will a conventional funeral do, really? There’s no point in just going through the motions. There’s no point in holding a funeral unless you know exactly why you’re doing it and what you are intending to accomplish.

Ask yourself: What is the status of a body after death? If you think the spirit has departed from the person who’s died – that the body is no longer the person – then you may feel that their body is just like old clothes. Which is why, when John Lennon was killed, Yoko Ono wanted no focus on his bullet-ridden corpse. She had it cremated unceremoniously, unwitnessed. She held a memorial ceremony instead, to take place “Pray for his soul from wherever you are,” she said. And people did. Presumably this is what John wanted, too.

When the playwright Arthur Miller was asked if he’d be going to the funeral of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, he replied, “Why would I go? She won’t be there.”

You can dispose of a body in a ceremonial way by holding a funeral, or you can arrange to have it buried or cremated with no one there. The consequence for the body is the same in either case.

Many funeral directors now offer direct cremation and direct burial. Some funeral directors see it for the positive choice it very often is – an alternative to a conventional funeral.

But not all of them get it: they think it’s inappropriate, it’s just for poor people and skinflints. You can tell by the tone they use when you phone. Many funeral directors offer direct cremation under separate branding, often on the internet, to keep it well away from their ‘conventional’ business.

Don’t deal with anyone who views it as an under-the-counter and shameful thing to do.

It’s important to do your research and ask the right questions because there are some less than satisfactory outfits out there.

Direct cremation is still reckoned unconventional, especially as an alternative to a normal funeral. If you choose it, it may well raise an eyebrow here and there. Alternatively, some people are likely to say “I wish I’d thought of that”.

Have a think about the issues involved, then decide.

Funeral director’s time and overheads

Storage in funeral director’s mortuary

Removal of pacemaker, prosthetic, etc if necessary

Simple coffin

Transport

Crematorium fee

Doctor’s fee x 2 @ £82 each – you need 2 doctors to certify cause of death and if the person who has died has been seen by the coroner there is no fee

 

How do you choose?

More funeral directors than you might think are brilliant; some of course are awful.

The person you are looking for is someone who can listen to you, understand you, see where you’re coming from, interpret your needs and wishes and deliver what you want on budget. The right funeral director for one person may not necessarily be right for someone else. So in addition to making a hard-headed judgement you’ll also need to pay attention to your gut feeling.

Mostly, the best funeral directors are good independents. They are likely to be less expensive and offer a higher level of personal service.

We think it’s important that the person you make arrangements with at the funeral home will be there for you on the day of the funeral. Many funeral directors do not offer this continuity of care.

 

Click on the topics below to find out more about funeral directors:

Choosing a funeral director

You go to the funeral director. You see a nice person called an arranger who listens to you, advises you and takes you through the funeral planning process. Over the next ten days or so you get to know each other pretty well and build warm relationship.  

It would be nice if, when you got to the unfamiliar and forbidding crematorium on one of the most difficult days of your life, that person was there for you with a reassuring smile.

But this essential continuity of care is not offered by a great many funeral directors. On the day of the funeral you are looked after by a stranger, called a conductor, whom you may not have been introduced to. Even if the arranger wanted to come to the funeral to see the job through and be there for you, they wouldn’t be allowed.

There’s a good economic reason for this separation of roles. You can employ funeral arranger on low wages, part time. Funeral arranging is not rated a specialist activity; funeral conducting is. This may make good money sense to the funeral director but it is likely to impair your experience of the funeral.

All the big chain funeral directors, Co-operative Funeralcare, Dignity, LM and Funeral Services Partnership, separate the roles of arranger and funeral director. So do a great many independents. This makes them more efficient as businesses but they don’t pass the saving on to you.

In life, the hand-built car is the one we want, the production line car the one we can afford. But when it comes to funerals, the hand-built funeral is normally no more expensive, and very often cheaper, than an impersonal production line funeral.

The best funeral directors pride themselves on offering continuity of care. They make sure that the first person you see is also the last person you see. That person is there for you from beginning to end.

If this is important to you, it is important to ask the following question when you are looking for a funeral director:

Can you guarantee that only one person will make arrangements with me, get back to me personally every time I ring and be the conductor on the day of the funeral?

There are four types of funeral business:

Long established, independent family firms.

Members of small or medium-size groups of funeral directors, including regional Co-operative societies.

Members of big conglomerates, eg, Dignity Caring Funerals and Co-operative Funeralcare.

First generation sole traders.

Presently, 60% of funeral homes (1 and 4) are independent ‘boutique’ businesses and 40% are consolidated: they belong to a group or chain. The funerals business is unusual in that so much of it remains in the hands of sole traders. In most businesses consolidation leads to operational efficiencies and economies of scale yielding lower costs and a cheaper product. This enables a consolidated business to undercut its competitors and drive them out of business – hey Tesco.

This has not happened in the funeral industry, whether through greed or incompetence. The consolidated businesses are among the most expensive and they compete badly on customer service. This doesn’t bother them especially because there is very little consumer scrutiny of the funeral industry and most people buy a funeral with fogged brains and low expectations. They don’t know any better.

A funeral home, however good, cannot stimulate an appetite for its product, neither can it inspire repeat business—it cannot encourage more people to die, nor can it encourage them to die more than once. It can only get bigger by ceaselessly devouring its rivals. A good small business remains small because it wants to.

It is expensive to start up a funeral business and, because we already have more funeral directors than we need, it’s a brave (or stupid) thing to do.

People who start from scratch and go it alone are normally passionate about what they do. Many of them once worked for one of the big groups where they reacted strongly against systems of working which prevented them from giving their customers the degree of personal service they reckoned they needed. We must backhandedly bless the Co-op, in particular, for unintentionally breeding some of our best born-again independent funeral directors.

Be aware, though, that there are some dodgy start-ups out there run by idiots or only in it for the money.

New businesses are normally one or two-person affairs. They are not usually rushed off their feet, so they have more time for you. Their premises will probably not be big and well resourced, merely adequate.

Given the oversupply of funeral directors in the UK it’s pointless to start a new business if you’re just going to do things the way they’ve always been done. Some of them do, nevertheless. Yet it is in this sector that you are also most likely to find the most intelligent, interesting, progressive undertakers, often with an un-stuffy way of going about things. Despite their relative inefficiency, the minnows normally charge no more than anyone else – sometimes less and often not enough.

One thing you can trust: the name over the door means exactly what it says.

Most people reckon a family funeral director is most likely to do the best job. All the guarantees seem to be in place. They’ve been at it for years, they are esteemed members of your local community. They’ll know what to do, they’ll do it in the time-honoured way, they’ll give you great personal service.

There’s no genetic logic to this. The skills and virtues of parents are not necessarily passed down to their children. A time-honoured way of doing things is not necessarily the best way of doing things now. And a family business of any age can get encumbered with family members who pay themselves more than they ought, preventing reinvestment. Some family firms are some of the most stick-in-the-mud, lazy and incompetent you could find.

By sheer genetic good luck, some of them are superb – as good as it gets. The important thing is that it’s well run now.

Some family businesses have got big over the years. For example, AW Lymn in Nottingham has 23 branches across the city and into Derby. It’s big but it’s brilliantly run. Arguably, it’s the best funeral director in Britain.

Intricate, foolproof management systems usually achieve a uniform level of good practice but, of course, cannot inspire superb service. It’s a bland product you may buy, safe and serviceable, lacking in character, impersonal. Big operations, as you know, tend to favour personnel who are obedient conformists. The branch will be run by a salaried manager.

You will most likely deal with an arranger, a person, normally female, who makes your funeral arrangements with you. You may not meet the funeral director who is to conduct your funeral until he or she knocks on your door on the day of the funeral itself.

Funeral homes which are members of groups are most likely to be characterised by harassed employees rushing to keep up. It’s all about logistics. And sales targets.

There are heroic exceptions. Some branches are run superbly by employees who put the interests of their clients above their frustration with their senior managers and their poor wages. They may well do a better job than your nearest independent undertaker.

The big names are:

Co-operative Funeralcare. Owned by the Co-operative Group, one of its core businesses. 800+ funeral homes nationwide.

Dignity Caring Funerals publicly listed company, 636 funeral homes and 39 crematoria. Making good money (£69.4 millionn2012) by driving up the price of funerals – some of the highest in the market.

Funeral Service Partners owned by August Equity. Subject of a TV exposé in 2012. Around 80 funeral homes.

Laurel Funerals owned by private equity consortium Duke Street Babson, Capital Europe and Metric Capital Partners.  Around 70 funeral homes.

We don’t recommend you buy a funeral from any of them.

There was an exposé on television in 2012 which showed the inside of a Co-operative Funeralcare hub mortuary. People who saw it were shocked. Two things horrified them in particular. First, they didn’t know this went on – they thought that people who died stayed at the funeral home. Second, they hated the open racking in which dead people were stored. It wasn’t a good look.

It makes perfectly good sense in terms of operational efficiency to have one mortuary serving many branches. All the bigger undertakers do it. So long as people who have died are given the sort of privacy most people expect and looked after with care and gentleness, there’s nothing all that objectionable about a hub mortuary unless you think it a bit impersonal. What goes on in properly run hub mortuary is a million times better than what goes on behind the scenes in some of our smaller grottier undertakers.

If you do not want the person who has died to be taken off to a hub mortuary you’ll need to find an undertaker who will keep them on their premises. There are lots.

And if you’re concerned about how well they will be looked after, ask to see the mortuary. Any good undertaker will be proud to show you round.

With the exception of some branches of Co-operative Funeralcare pretty much every funeral home in the country trades either under the name of either its present owner or its one-time owner. It’s very hard to tell if a funeral home is the sort of family business you’re actually after or a member of a larger group.

Cecil Newling “are your friendly family owned funeral directors in Royston and surroundings”. EA Langley “are your friendly family owned funeral directors in Paddington and surroundings.” E. Wotten “are your friendly family owned funeral directors in Calne and Chippenham and surroundings”. The family in question is Lodge Brothers. Lodge Brothers family-own 39 funeral businesses in the south of England, almost all of which trade under the names of the previous owners and are, of course, “your friendly family owned funeral directors” wherever they are – they’re just not owned by the family you think owns it.

The people who run groups think that we don’t want to buy a funeral from them, we’d rather deal with a wee ‘mom and pop shop’. For this reason, Dignity Caring Funerals cleverly cultivates zero brand recognition except among its shareholders. Every Dignity branch trades under its old family name, but every branch also displays the logo of its owner. Because you don’t recognise it you don’t notice it. It looks like this:

Of course there’s no reason why someone couldn’t roll out a great brand in funerals. Imagine if John Lewis did funerals – why, we’d all buy one from them.

For now, when you’re shopping around, ask very carefully who owns the business. Our advice: small is usually best.

The co-operative movement owes its principles to its founders, the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of working people who got together to enable fellow workers to buy food at prices they could afford. Their vision was enshrined in the Rochdale Principles.

There were once hundreds of independent co-operative societies. Most have merged to form The Co-operative Group. There are still a few independent societies. Of these, a few still operate an independent funeral service and some of them, like Scotmid in Edinburgh, are brilliant. All co-ops proclaim high ethical standards.

Given the economies of scale enjoyed by Funeralcare, and having in mind its foundational principles, you might expect it, as the people’s undertaker, to provide the cheapest funerals out there. It doesn’t. Its average charge for a funeral is higher than that charged by many independent firms, often by between £500 and £1000. You would think that, in an age of funeral poverty when increasing numbers of people are finding it harder and harder to find the price of a funeral, Funeralcare would the standard-bearer for affordable funerals. It isn’t.

It offers good training and it pays good wages by funeral sector standards. It has some first-class people working for it.

And it’s profitable. So where does all the money go? Propping up the rest of the Co-op Group? Who knows?

Funeralcare has a reputation for sloppiness and scandal within the funeral industry, whose competitors sometimes refer to it as the Cock-up. To be sure, it has made its fair share of mistakes, and these are recorded on the Good Funeral Guide website. The good news is that the frequency of these is declining, though we receive more complaints about Funeralcare than anyone else. Funeralcare has in the past been characterised by disenchanted funeral workers. Levels of dissatisfaction seem to be falling.

Of greatest concern to many of its potential clients is its derecognition of the GMB trade union, earning it a ban from the Glastonbury Festival and the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, and the condemnation of the TUC. One can only speculate on what the Rochdale Pioneers would have thought of that.

We don’t think Co-operative Funeralcare is wicked but we do think it’s lost its focus. Edgar Parnell, former chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation, offers this analysis which we think helpful in understanding where it all went so wrong for The Co-operative Group.

The management of the Co-operative Group appear to believe that they are running a conventional business with the aim of profit maximization that just happens to be owned by members rather than by investors. Whereas they need to be clear that the function of all co-operatives and mutuals is to intervene within the marketplace in the best interests of their members. The Group’s management either do not fully understand, or choose not to adhere to, the underlying essentials of the model of enterprise required for any form of co-operative or mutual to be successful.

Chasing growth to the detriment of the real interests of the membership has proved to be the downfall of major consumer co-ops in many countries in Europe. Executives often seek to pursue a growth strategy because it means a bigger empire, more status and higher pay for them. The correct response to expansion proposals, including merger proposals, should always be to focus upon what is best for the membership and most likely to result in the achievement of the purpose of the enterprise. When co-operatives grow in terms of the number of members and/or turnover, they are frequently beset by multiple problems. They lose sight of their original purpose, are prone to switch towards serving the interests of senior executives or cliques rather than those of the bulk of their members. As a consequence, they come to be regarded as irrelevant to the lives of their members and in the worst case they are hijacked by self-interested groups.

 

Click on the topics below for practical things you can do that will help you to decide:

Practical stuff to choose a FD

Unless you have religious reasons for doing otherwise, take your time. If someone dies at home, by all means call a funeral director and ask them to collect the body but be aware that you can have them transferred to another funeral director for a nominal charge before any paperwork is signed.

This also applies if the person has already been collected because they died in a nursing home. If the person died in a hospital there may be no rush – they can stay in the mortuary until you’ve chosen a funeral director you’re happy with. If the hospital does not have a mortuary, a nominated funeral director will look after them until you arrange for a transfer.

By all means call family and friends to tell them that death has occurred, but don’t feel that you need to tell them the place and time of the funeral in the same call. Unless the coroner is involved you must register the death within 5 days.

Phone a friend

It’s always worth asking around to see if anyone can recommend a good funeral director. But remember: the average number of funerals anyone buys in a lifetime is 2. No way are they experts. What’s more, most people have very low expectations when they buy a funeral so they’re easily satisfied.

The funeral director they recommend may be perfectly okay, but you can probably find a much better one by doing some research yourself.

 

Ask a friend to help

Chances are you’ve never organised a funeral before. Worse, it’s difficult to make hard-headed judgements if you are feeling very sad. So consider asking a friend to help out. People always want to be useful at a time like this – here’s their chance.

Choose someone who is level-headed, organised, not afraid to read the information on this website, ask questions of you and funeral directors, and in whom you can confide about any financial constraints.

Your main choice is between burial and cremation – unless your religion prescribes one or the other. Cremation is almost always cheaper.

Remember: you can cut costs to a minimum by opting for direct cremation and holding a funeral/memorial and/or ash scattering event a few days, weeks or months later at a place and time that’s right for you and the person who died.

Pretty much all the information you need is on this website, so spend time learning all the other choices you have – or get your friend to do it for you.

Use the checksheet below, Buy only what you want, at the end of this document – print it out. Then you’ll be ready to ring your local funeral directors.

Your budget will determine what sort of funeral you choose. Because you want to ‘do them proud’ you can very easily overspend. Remember that, ultimately, a good send-off is determined by what you say and do, not what you spend.

Ask your friend to help you stick to your budget and think about how people can play their part in the preparations and ceremony. Remember that many funeral directors will ask for all of the 3rd-party fees up front (this could up to £800 for cremation in some parts of the country, even more for burial), with the balance to be paid soon after the funeral, so you will need to have the funds available.

It’s perfectly okay to ask friends and family to help with the cost, and much more practical than buying flowers which will usually only be seen briefly. Finally, be sure to claim any benefits you might be entitled to.

Google ‘funeral director + your town’ and you’ll get a list of all your local funeral directors.

Ring. Say you’re looking for the right funeral director at the right price.

Evaluate how your request is dealt with and give each one stars out of five.

Draw up a shortlist of, say, three.

Who owns this business?

How long have you been going?

Why should I choose you in favour of anyone else? What makes you special?

What is your position on embalming—is this something you insist on or actively promote?

Can you guarantee that only one person will make arrangements with me, get back to me personally every time I ring and be the conductor on the day of the funeral?

Will I be able to speak you personally every day if I need to?

I’d like you to give me a quote for the following funeral, please (now use the check sheet below).

Click here to download a checklist of questions you may want to ask the undertaker you are thinking of using.

Funeral Directors

 

What do funeral directors do?

Don’t be taken in by the fancy title, funeral directors are not licensed. There’s no compulsory training. Anyone can set themselves up as a funeral director, no previous experience necessary.

Funeral directors undertake to do those jobs, and only those jobs, that you are legally allowed to ask them to do for you. That’s why they are called undertakers.

In addition to being able to look after the body of the person who has died and transport them to the funeral, a funeral director is, basically, an event organiser. Some—just some—are brilliant at this.

You can, of course, do as much of what they do as you want.

 

Click on the questions below to find out more:

What do FDs do

Undertakers presently have three distinct roles calling for very different skills. They are:

Tradespeople skilled in transporting and looking after dead bodies

Event planners who source, instruct and orchestrate other providers

Guides who will listen to you carefully, make you aware of your choices and help you make your way through unfamiliar territory. They will make suggestions and help you create a send-off for the person who has died which will be, both, worthy of that person and, also, of immeasurable emotional value to you. Of all the services a funeral director offers, this is the one with far and away the highest value. Some—just some—are brilliant at it.

 

Arranging a funeral is a fairly complex task which must be completed to a deadline and got right. There is no margin for error.

That’s why most funeral directors have control freak side to their natures. It stems both from a terror of getting it wrong and from the fact that many of their clients are totally dependent on them. Attention to detail is vital. Nothing could be worse than arriving late at the crematorium, or getting there only to find that the funeral cannot go ahead because the paperwork was late.

Funeral directors tend not to get it wrong. Scandals, glitches, even, are few.

Military precision is what undertakers do best. They have systems. Procedures. A way of doing things, the same way every time. Foolproof. You can see how they can get to be inflexible stick-in-the-muds. It’s the paranoia that keeps them up to the mark.

A very small scale funeral director will do all or most of this.

In bigger funeral homes the work is divvied up. An arranger does the arranging and paperwork —often part time, almost always female. This may be the only person you meet until the day of the funeral.

A mortuary assistant does the body work – prepping, they call it.

Your master of ceremonies on the day of the funeral is called the conductor, and many people do not meet their conductor until he or she knocks on their door on the day of the funeral.

Bearers carry the coffin. They are almost always part-timers, and they may work for several funeral directors. This is a nice little earner for off-duty firefighters, ambulance drivers and retired policemen.

The bigger the operation, the greater will be the number of strangers dealing with your dead person. At a busy funeral director’s the priorities are paperwork and transport issues. The less they see of you, frankly, the happier most of them are. They need to get on.

The bigger the operation, the more impersonal it tends to be. In such an organisation the interests of the business and the interests of you, the consumer, are divergent. In balancing, on the one hand, things to do against, on the other, people to see, funeral directors have to prioritise things to do every time. They are running against the clock. You get in the way.

You do not have to engage a funeral director to be both the carer of the body of the person who has died and the event planner. If you want to plan an elaborate funeral, and you don’t think there’s a funeral director in your local area who can rise to the occasion, your best bet may be to engage an expert event planner.

If you outsource everything to your funeral director, this is what they’ll do.

You can, of course, do any or all of these things yourself.

Take the call announcing a death and where that death has taken place – home, hospital, hospice, nursing home. Arrange to collect the body at a mutually convenient time. If the person has died at home or in a nursing home, the body may well have to be collected in the middle of the night. Some heavy lifting required and, possibly, difficult stairs to be negotiated

Measure body for coffin

See family representative and make arrangements for burial or cremation—date and time. Engage a minister or celebrant. Check vehicle availability and hire in if necessary

Sell ancillary services – coffin, limousines, flowers, catering, etc. Choose coffin.

Wash the body

Embalm (optional).

Close eyes and mouth. Shave men. Do hair. Apply makeup

Dress.

Put body in coffin

Put it in a fridge

Do paperwork – application for cremation or burial

Engage pallbearers

Arrange flower delivery

Get the order of service to the printer

Make body presentable in chapel of rest or venue of choice if family want to come and visit

On the day of the funeral, screw the coffin lid down, put it in the hearse and head off to the church or crematorium. (Sometimes the coffin will go the church the evening before.)

Superintend bearers or family and friends of the person who has died and ensure that the coffin is carried in safely

Superintend seating

Collect donations

Take chief mourners to wake/after-event refreshments (optional)

How do undertakers care for the dead?

WARNING: What follows contains graphic descriptions and may make for uncomfortable or distressing reading. Don’t read on if you are easily upset.

Once an undertaker has taken a dead person back to their mortuary, there are three things to be done:
1. Slow the process of decomposition by keeping the person who has died refrigerated
2. Wash and dress the body
3. Get the person who has died ready to be visited

Some undertakers recommend embalming, others don’t. If you want to find out what embalming entails, read the factsheet What is embalming? WARNING: It is much more graphic than this factsheet.

An undertaker should ask for your permission to embalm but will not routinely ask your permission to do two things which you may feel you ought to know about so you must get your decision in first.

These things involve closing the eyes and the mouth.

Why don’t they ask first?
They don’t ask for the kindest and most considerate of reasons: they think it best you don’t know because you may find it upsetting.
If you wish to come and visit the person who has died in the ‘chapel of rest’, your undertaker wants you to have a good experience and one which reflects well on their duty of care. They want you to see the person who has died, who may have had a difficult and distressing death, looking serene and peaceful. They want your last, enduring memory to be a good one.

They set the features. They close the mouth and shut the eyes. People have been setting the features of their dead since the beginning of time.
Setting the features

On TV shows and in movies you are accustomed to seeing horrifically mutilated corpses, but the directors seem to think that you will not be able to bear to see their mouths gaping. In real life that’s what mouths do. They’re always shut in Silent Witness. That’s how you know they’re not dead. What’s more, most people’s eyes stay open in death. How do you close them?
Most undertakers shut the eyes by using eye caps. An eye cap is a plastic hemisphere dimpled on the outside. The eyelid is pulled up, the eye dried, the cap put on top of the eyeball and the eyelid pulled over it. This has the virtue also of plumping up the eyeballs, which sink in death.

The next paragraph is harder to read.
Undertakers close the mouth by means of what they call a jaw suture: a long stitch made inside the mouth with a curved, threaded needle through the bottom lip beneath the teeth, up under the top lip, through the septum and back down into the mouth. A simple knot then pulls the jaw shut, the trick being not to tie it too tight – it creates a parrot expression. Lips ever so slightly parted is reckoned the best look.

If you find either of these procedures objectionable it is possible to keep eyes closed by either pulling the top lid over the lashes of the lower lid, or coating the edges with Vaseline. It is possible to keep the jaw shut by supporting it underneath the chin.
Alternatively, the jaw can simply be left open.

Be sure to tell your undertaker what he or she may or must not do. You have a duty of care, too.

Undertaking is not regulated by law, so there are no legal requirements for undertakers to be trained to a recognised standard and lcensed. The law takes a relaxed view of undertakers; its focus is on getting the dead buried or cremated before they become a health hazard.

When you think that you need a licence to open a cattery, it may seem wrong that anyone can set themselves up as an undertaker just like that. But scandals are few, and the beauty of the way things stand is that bereaved people have all sorts of rights that would be taken away if undertaking became regulated.

Professionalising and regulating undertakers can only reinforce the perception that they are the default disposers of the dead and, worse, move them a step closer to being the only people allowed to do so.

At the moment, you are allowed to care for your dead person at home. It would be a shame to give that up.

Yes. Some undertakers have been professionally trained. They’re the ones with the initials Dip FD after their names. The two trade associations, the National Association of Funeral Directors and the Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, who represent between them most undertakers in Britain, are very keen on training – but they don’t insist on it as a condition of membership.

Should it matter to you? Inasmuch as some of the very best funeral directors do not have a Dip FD, no. They learnt their trade on the job. They served a good old-fashioned apprenticeship, starting by washing cars, driving and pallbearing, and advanced through the ranks. These are practical people and they learn by doing.

The most important attribute of a funeral director is emotional intelligence, and there’s no exam that can test for that.

You are protected by:

The Supply of Goods and Services Acts 1982 and, if you made arrangements at home, by the Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

Both the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and The National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF) have codes of practice and offer an arbitration service to complainants against their members.

Most funeral directors belong to one of two trade associations. Each has entry criteria and each a code of practice. Both operate a complaints procedure under the auspices of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. They are the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and The National Society of Allied & Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF). They inspect members’ premises to make sure they are keeping up to the mark.

They confer an element of respectability on the industry. It is impressive that members pay for the privilege of being policed. Are they any guarantee of quality? No. They are a guarantee of acceptable standards, that’s all.

Don’t be put off if a funeral director is not a member of NAFD or SAIF.

You can see their codes of conduct on their websites: NAFD Code of Practice and SAIF Code of Practice.

 

What are funeral directors like?

Most of us don’t know anyone who’s an undertaker nor do we ever think about undertakers until we have to. What are they like as people?

 

Click the questions below to find out:

What are FDs like

Most of us don’t know anyone who’s an undertaker nor do most of us ever think about undertakers until we have to go and see one.

That’s when we begin to wonder what they’re going to be like.

Are they soft-spoken, slightly creepy black-clad men with long waxy faces, wonky smiles and yellow teeth who live in gloom?

No, they’re not. They’re as normal as rice pudding, most of them.

The best – and there are more of them than you might think – are some of the nicest and best people you could ever meet.

If you’ve always supposed you’d have to be weird or warped to be an undertaker you’d be exactly wrong. Weirdoes may be attracted to the trade—there are some—but they don’t last. Emotionally needy people are drawn to it, too—those who feed off the grief of others. They don’t last, either.

Some are born to it—those who go into the family business. These may, some of them, lack the zeal of their undertakerly ancestors, but they are seduced by attractive financial returns for comparatively little hard work. They can pay other people to do that.

Those not born into funeral directing, let’s call them the vocational undertakers, are drawn to the work, most of them, not because they like being around dead bodies but because they like being around living people. That really is ninety per cent of their motivation. It is important work they do, helping the living through difficult times by looking after their dead.

They probably like putting on a bit of a show, too. The dressing-up bit can be a catch.

Of course, there are those who are just in it for the money. But it is difficult to get rich quick in undertaking. It takes years to build up a business. And most Brits reckon the only good funeral is a cheap one, so margins are small.

You don’t need to be an academic high-flier to become a funeral director. There are few other jobs that could make many of them feel so important. It’s not the sort of job that attracts middle class people, and most of them aren’t.

Every day is different. There’s variety. Every funeral is a drama. The hours aren’t brilliant—you can be called out in the middle of the night—but, except in big cities, the work for most is not grindingly hard unless you work for one of the conglomerates, Dignity or Co-op Funeralcare.

There is normally a lull in the summer and a busy patch after Christmas.

Most funeral directors can put on a good show. They can big up the empathy, switch on the sincerity, convince you they care. But what are they like when you’re not looking?

Quite the reverse, some of them, those who have lost the heart for it and are simply going through the motions. It is easy to grow pompous, complacent, hardened or bored when you deal every day with clients who do not keep you on your toes, whom you can easily talk into buying the same funeral as everyone else.

Busy urban funeral directors look after the bodies of all sorts of people they know nothing of and may care nothing about. Behind the scenes their indifference may turn to negligence, coarseness, disrespect. This may come as no surprise and should serve as a warning.

In rural areas it is more likely that funeral directors will know the people they are looking after. Not only that, but their private and public behaviour are much better known. They maintain their good name in the community at their commercial peril.

Having said which, there are many funeral directors who adhere to a code of behaviour whose high standards might astonish you. Behind the scenes they treat their dead bodies with immaculate courtesy. They talk to them as they wash and dress them. They knock before going in to the chapel of rest. They carry coffins gently. They hold ashes’ urns in both hands, never under one arm. They are exactly the same in public as in private. They have a strong sense of pride in their calling. This is the sort of funeral director you are looking for and which this website will help you to find.

Don’t expect undertakers to be grief counsellors. Why should they be? If, as a nation, we are not good at handling death, it is not their responsibility to do something about that. We hire an undertaker to take care of the practicalities, not to take away the pain. Some do offer counselling as an expression of their commitment to care. You will make your own appraisal of their qualifications for doing so.

Reassuringly, almost all undertakers and their staff are much cheerier than you might think. Laughter is a very necessary safety valve for them. Remember, these are people who know what a quirky and sudden thing death is. They are reminded of it every day. They feel disturbed when someone their own age dies, just as you would be. They are deeply affected by the death of a child, just like you.

Because their work can sometimes be unpleasant—working for the coroner means stretchering out suicides, picking up long-dead derelicts from empty buildings—they tend to have an overdeveloped sense of humour. They can easily conceal their cheeriness beneath a pall of velvet sorrow.

When you’re not looking, their ribaldry would surprise and possibly delight you. Possibly not. Put a drink in their hands and they’ll let down their hair with the best of them.

Dealing with death all day every day teaches you to keenly appreciate being alive.

Undertakers have an image problem, naturally – some, not all. They are the victims of popular attitudes to death. And in all cultures those who deal with the dead are shunned to a greater or lesser extent. The last question an undertaker wants to hear on holiday is “What do you do?”

Undertakers do a job which most people reckon to be unenviable—someone’s got to do it—so they may be socially insecure. They know people giggle about them or dread them. They are a caste apart. Like priests, another caste, they like to attire themselves in archaic fancy dress.

But whereas priests are an otherworldly caste, undertakers are ineluctably an underworldly caste. So they work hard to be thought of as respectable, professional folk, pillars of the community. And yet, while we happily shake hands with a doctor, less so with a lawyer, many of us probably wonder what’s under an undertaker’s fingernails. They carry round with them a little cloud of fear—you’re bound to feel a frisson if someone points one out to you.

Most of them are never going to be asked to open the church fete, judge a beauty pageant or open an old people’s home. They like to do their bit for the community, though, and the old school sort can be relied on to sponsor bowls tournaments and charity golf days – if it gives them the chance to flog a few pre-need funeral plans to their target market.

Like policemen, they tend to join the masons and may find socialising difficult.

Some, not all.

A funeral director’s working day is awash with tears. Every day. How on earth do they cope?

Some disengage and just focus on the practicalities.

But most funeral directors find it hard not to make some kind of human connection and, once they’ve established some sort of rapport with their clients, they’re bound to have a feeling for what’s happened to them. Those who are emotionally mature can absorb the grief of others, then let it pass. This, they say, is the way the world is, and they accept that.

Does the ever-accumulating burden of misery ever get too much? The rate of emotional burn-out in the industry is low compared with vets, dentists, doctors and others in caring professions but it happens of course. They’re not overly prone to become drunks or suicides. In this bitchiest of professions, undertaker friends are very good at looking out for each other.

This is how Rupert and Claire Callender of the Green Funeral Company cope: “Engage with it, let it in, feel it and then let it out again. We don’t have formal supervision, but we talk, and often cry. And sometimes we dance all night. We’ve not gone mad yet.

While other providers of goods and services dance to the tune of their clients, buyers of funerals tend to be tuneless. If undertakers miss out on this vital, bracing discipline of the market, the demanding, pernickety client, it is none of their fault. If they give the impression that they know best, it’s because they usually do.

Yes, of course they look at your postcode and work out what they reckon you can afford. Of course they’ll sell you anything they think you can pay for. At the same time, they’ll try and talk you out of buying anything they think you can’t afford because they need you to be able to pay them.

There’s a widespread public feeling that it is wrong to make money from the bereaved. A great many undertakers would agree. The last thing most people want to buy is a funeral.

It depends on how you look at it. If you think of a funeral as an invidious necessity, it’s going to be too expensive whatever its price.

But if you think of a funeral as a precious gift to the person who has died, you will find that much of the merchandise and most of the service is charged at a fair commercial rate.

Family and independent funeral directors are, if they’re halfway competent, comfortably off. Vocational undertakers who work for chains of funeral directors or one of the conglomerates, Dignity or the Co-op, take home a lot less—all of them less than £25,000 a year, some a lot less than that. The profits of funerals are rarely distributed among wage slaves.

The brightest and most enterprising vocational funeral directors bravely set up on their own. Because they are motivated by a love of what they do and a desire to serve, rather than make pots of money, many of them keep their charges very low—lower than they ought.

When it comes to funerals, most people prefer the traditional look. Most funeral directors revere tradition too. Nothing defines this better than their love of Victorian fancy dress. It makes them feel important, of course. And some of them do decidedly look splendid. Or odd. Or ridiculously anachronistic. You will have your own view.

There are aspects of the ceremonial, walking in front of the hearse, for example (paging it, they call it), which are undoubtedly magnificent if that’s what you like, but not if carried off by an unimpressive physical specimen with bad hair, flat feet and an unconvincingly arranged facial rictus.

So: ten out of ten to those undertakers who rise to the occasion. We just hope they ask they ask families first if this is what they want. Sometimes you wonder who the funeral is all about—the person who has died or the undertaker.

It’s all done in the cause of dignity, for sure, dignity being that version of respect we reserve for the old, the dying and the dead. There’s an element of theatre, of course.

Bad funeral directors ham it up by being pompous or obsequious; good ones simply allow their behaviour to be informed by the sense of occasion and take their cue from the behaviour of the mourners.

Funeral directors and their staff who favour deep black formal attire defend it by calling it uniform. They may also be aware that, if their clothing is forbidding and even shudder-making, it’s a power statement. It bigs up their mystique.

It would be good to see more of them with the confidence and good sense to dress approachably at least when they are interviewing clients. Many of the best new funeral directors dress down, recognising the importance of levelling with people.

Most undertakers dote on their swanky limousines and their glossy hearses. They renew them whenever they can afford to – at their clients’ expense, of course. They measure their business success by the size and marque of their vehicles and exult in the envy of their fellow undertakers.

There’s not necessarily much client focus here. Or is there? Most people never get the chance to ride in such magnificence. If it’s all part of doing things properly, bring ‘em on. If it’s not your style, or if you’re so grief-stricken you’re unlikely to notice, it seems a bit of a waste.

Funeral directors are traditionally male. Correction. Were. The women are coming and it’s a welcome sight.

When it was the custom to keep dead people at home it was women, often midwives, who laid them out, talked to the family, told them what they needed to know and offered a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. They counted for much more than the undertaker. But as more and more people died in hospital, and fewer families wanted a corpse brought home to their front room, the layers-out lost their role.

Male dominance relegated women to lesser roles. This lives on. Today, many funeral directors employ female arrangers to interview families and deal with the admin.

The male funeral director may not see the family at all until the day of the funeral, and the arranger, the person you have spent all your time with, if she wants to attend the funeral, will most likely be told she can’t.

The growing influence of women is tending to dissolve the focus on the material side of funerals – the limos, the top hats, the rigid formalities, the reverence for tradition.

Women are not necessarily emotionally more intelligent than men but they usually are and they often present a welcome softer side. Theirs is a complementary influence and it’s badly needed.

Funeral directors are not all alike and very few would agree with this description of them, which is full of generalisations. “That’s not me,” they’d say, “though, yes, there are a heck of a lot who are like that.”

As in any line of work there is a spectrum of quality. The best—and the worst—are often those who are regarded by other undertakers as “not one of us”.

 

What does a funeral cost?

The bad news: funeral directors are in it to make money. The good news: the best are some of the most reasonably priced. Treat the transaction the same as you would with any service provider. Value for money can only be measured by the value you place on the funeral as an event. The more important this is to you, the more important it is to find exactly the right funeral director. 

Co-operative Funeralcare and Dignity plc are more expensive than we think they ought to. Avoid them. We have very little time, either, for the Funeral Services Partnership.

It’s not always obvious who owns a funeral home. See Beware the name over the door below.

For some quick online price comparisons, have a look at yourfuneralchoice.com, the online price comparison website run by some very nice people who we know.

If money is very tight or you simply want a lowest-cost funeral, we can advise you.

If you are arranging a funeral for a baby or a child under 16, you can apply for help up to £700 from the Child Bereavement Charity.

 

For more information click on the question below:

What you pay for

Most people think funerals are too expensive. You may be one of them.

Another way of looking at this is to say that most people think a funeral offers rotten value for money. By this they mean that a funeral offers a low-value experience. What good, they say, does a funeral do, really? Many say they feel empty, the day after.

This is only partly the fault of funeral directors. Their job is mostly about dealing with logistics – organising and co-ordinating. They are practical people. The greater responsibility for making a funeral meaningful and memorable belongs to whoever is in charge of creating the ceremony. If that’s a minister, there’s little or nothing anyone can do.

But if it’s someone you choose – a celebrant, a family member, a friend – you have the opportunity to make sure the funeral achieves everything you want it to achieve. Because you are probably inexperienced at arranging a funeral, a funeral director with the emotional intelligence to be able to see where you’re coming from is a must.

You are unlikely to be able to arrange a high-value funeral if you outsource everything to professionals and play a passive part on the day. You need to get stuck in wherever you can. Because when it’s all over you need to feel proud.

There is no reason why those who look after the dead should not make a reasonable living from it; most of us couldn’t do without them.

And you don’t have to use one if you don’t want to.

Funeral costs outpace inflation; they double roughly every ten years. The biggest cost increases recently have been in areas outside the control of funeral directors.

Burial and cremation costs have risen steeply, especially cremation. This is partly down to crematoria installing expensive EU-compliant filtration equipment and partly down to councils inflating charges to compensate for budget cuts. This has had the effect of increasing profits for private operators, who now operate something like 1 in 5 crematoria.

A basic full-service cremation funeral costs around £3,700 (there are regional variations).

Burial is normally more expensive, but in some places is cheaper. Costs vary widely depending on region. You can do a rough calculation using this tool – here.

Actually, some funeral directors do display their prices online. Good for them. They are the ones likely to offer best value.

Most funeral directors don’t and, of course, this makes it very difficult to shop around from your laptop or tablet. Why don’t they? Because they don’t feel it’s dignified. Something like that. They tend not to approve of those funeral directors who do.

Would you eat in a restaurant that didn’t put its prices in the window? Or go into a clothes shop that didn’t display prices on the garments? Of course you wouldn’t. But the only way to find out how much most funeral directors charge is by sitting down with them and working through what you want. You can see why they do that, can’t you?

It’s the kind of thing that gets funeral directors badly thought of and it’s high time they put the needs and interests of bereaved people first. This lack of transparency over prices is the reason why chain undertakers like Dignity and Co-operative Funeralcare manage to get away with their absurdly high prices – because people simply don’t know any better and assume all funeral directors charge about the same. They don’t!

A funeral director tries to be, as far as possible, a one-stop-shop for all you need. You pay a funeral director for:

Merchandise

A coffin, an urn for ashes. You can source these yourself. Go to the Coffins page on our website.

Services

Looking after the body, embalming if you wish, doing the paperwork and making arrangements for cremation or burial, hire of a hearse and other transport, use of the chapel of rest if you want to visit, and provision of bearers to carry the coffin.

Consultancy

Answering your questions, interpreting your expectations and making you aware of options across a wide range of legal, practical, social and personal issues.

Agency

Sourcing service providers – cemetery or crematorium, celebrant, florist, caterer, printer for your order of service, an alternative hearse, someone who’ll sell you a headstone. Some of these services will be in-house. You can source them yourself. Many undertakers take a referral fee or commission from service and merchandise providers. This is perfectly normal business practice

Overheads

A contribution to the costs of running the business—premises, facilities and those hideously expensive vehicles – a new hearse costs £100,000+.

Disbursements

This is a jargon word for bills you owe to third parties which the undertaker pays on your behalf. Why would they do that? It’s all part of their drive to make themselves indispensable—and it certainly suits the third parties because the undertaker carries the debt.

These bills include:

Crematorium fee – roughly £550-800. Some offer a lower fee (£400 or less) in the early morning. Phone your local crematorium and find out.

Cost of grave. Check with your local authority or church. In some places burial is cheaper than cremation; in others vastly more expensive. You’ll have to pay for gravedigging, too. Hardly any will let you help – for health and safety reasons.

Doctors’ fees. 2 x an average of £85 for cremation, 1 x an average of £85 for burial

Minister or celebrant.  £160-220

Organist. Around £65

Obituary announcement in newspaper – local £60-80; national roughly £25 per line

Any other providers of goods and services sourced by your undertaker – flowers, celebrant, order of service, etc.

You may prefer to pay these individual bills yourself.

Funeral directors are instructed by the code of practice of their trade associations, if they are members, to display their prices prominently and present you with an itemised estimate of costs based on your first discussion with them.

When the arrangements are finalised, your funeral director must give you an itemised bill showing exactly what you are paying for.

If you sign a contract with a funeral director at the funeral home, the contract is binding. If you sign the contract at home, you have a seven-day cooling off period during which time you can cancel the contract an go elsewhere.

Yes, do haggle.

There are more funeral directors out there than we need so there’s plenty of competition between them.

Ask for money off for prompt payment or simply a reduction of the estimate.

Be polite friendly and businesslike – don’t make the funeral director feel vanquished.

What funeral director’s call their professional fee is a ragbag of charges. Every funeral director’s ragbag is different. Some charge separately for items which others bundle in with their professional fee.

For example, some funeral directors charge separately for the use of a hearse or limousine; others include them.

So, if you’re price comparison shopping, don’t use the professional fee as a benchmark. The only way to compare between funeral directors is by getting full estimates.

The basic elements which make up the professional fee are:  

expertise

advice

paperwork

around 43 hours of staff time

overheads associated with running the business

Here are all the other basic elements of a funeral. Decide which you want and which you don’t. Then decide which of those you want you are going to source yourself.

Transporting the person who has died to the funeral home (roughly £120; could be double that for out-of-hours)

Coffin or shroud (anything from £120 up)

Embalming (around £100)

Coffin bearers (around £30 each)

Hearse (around £200)

Limousine (around £200

Order of service (around £100)

Flowers

Catering

A funeral director’s biggest capital outlay is on vehicles: hearse and limousines for mourners. If that funeral director does only a few funerals a week those vehicles spend a lot of time standing idle.

An enterprising entrepreneur who buys up a cluster of local funeral homes can establish a car pool and work those vehicles to death. He or she can do exclusive deals with suppliers of goods and services and begin to enjoy significant economies of scale. This ought to enable them to undercut boutique independent businesses and keep growing. This is how the supermarkets emptied our high streets.

The really big boys, Co-operative Funeralcare and Dignity Caring Funeral Services, even have central mortuaries where they can operate what amounts to a production line.

And yet the curious thing is that these outfits are among the most expensive in the industry.

Can you:

Supply your own coffin?

Lay on your own transport?

Conduct the funeral service?

Do the paperwork?

Provide your own bearers to carry the coffin?

Your least expensive option is to leave the person who has died in the hospital mortuary, or the mortuary of the funeral director who collected them. People who die in care homes and hospices usually go straight to a funeral director’s mortuary; people who die in hospital normally stay in the hospital mortuary unless there is pressure on space. If someone dies at home, some hospital mortuaries will look after them.

Make or buy a coffin. Make sure it is the right size. See our Coffins

Go to your Bereavement Services officer. Do all the paperwork, book the burial or cremation and pay all the fees. They are likely to be helpful and supportive.

On the day of the funeral, go to the mortuary of the hospital or funeral director. You will need help. Lift the body into the coffin, screw down the lid and put it in whatever vehicle you have got – an estate car, perhaps, or a van. Make sure the coffin is safely anchored. Drive to the crematorium or cemetery. Do not be late.

The hospital will not charge you for storing the body but a funeral director will.

An alternative to this arrangement is to leave the person who has died in the hospital mortuary and have them collected, coffined and brought to the crematorium or cemetery by an undertaker on the day of the funeral. You ought to be able to negotiate a good rate for this most basic service.

The cheapest way to do it is to do it all yourself, but it’s not for faint hearts.

See our useful guide Do It All Yourself.

If you do not wish to hold a funeral with the body present, or if you want no funeral at all, consider direct cremation.

If you are penniless you may be eligible for a payment towards funeral expenses from the Social Fund. Find out more here. The funeral payment won’t cover the complete cost of a traditional funeral organised by a funeral director and it is hard to get.

You will have to make up the shortfall somehow.

If your spouse or civil partner has died younger than pensionable age you may be eligible for a Bereavement Grant of £2000 tax free.

More information here.

The more upfront you are about your situation, the more your funeral director will be able to help you with your application. So put your cards on the table from the word go.

Alternatively, you can pass responsibility for the funeral back to the hospital where the person died, or to your local authority. One or the other will then arrange the funeral, which you will be able to attend.

There is no shame in this.  If it is to be a cremation, it will be almost the same as a no-frills private funeral.  If you have slightly unusual requests for the funeral ceremony and you aren’t getting much support from the funeral director engaged by the council, the crematorium staff may prove very helpful.

If it is to be burial, the council may insist that you use a public grave, which means that the person who has died will share the grave with people who are not known to you.  But all costs will be covered.

Bereavement is hard enough.

Don’t leave yourself with the stress of debt as well.

 

Beware the name over the door!

Many branches of funeral chains trade under the family name of the undertaker who sold out to them. They look just like family businesses but they’re not. How disgraceful, you may think, that these outfits have so little faith in their good name that they feel they have to dress up as someone else. How right you are.

 

Trusted information resources

The Natural Death Centre

FuneralHelper

FinalFling

 

The Bereavement Services Portal is a good source of very useful info about registrars, cemeteries, memorials, local funeral directors, natural burial grounds, care and advice and the like. Find it here.

 

You can find pretty much all the background information you’ll need about cemeteries here.

 

If you’d like to meet up with real funeral directors in the virtual world or in person and find out more about what they do, why not consider joining the Good Funeral Guild? Some of the very best are part of the Guild, along with people from all walks of life who have a common interest in making funerals better. In the process, they are all helping us keep this website going for those who need it now, or in the future.